Ask the CIO: Inspiring & Leading EdTech Innovation at Saïd School of Business

A conversation with Mark Bramwell, Chief Information Officer at Oxford University Saïd School of Business.

Mark Bramwell's Headshot

Saïd Business School’s Chief Information Officer Mark Bramwell may have one of the most interesting, and challenging, jobs in higher education. He leads the technology and systems arm of a business school embedded within an 800-year-old institution, the University of Oxford.

Bramwell’s team is tasked with delivering information and technology solutions that are on the same level as corporate multinational organizations while preserving the quality and reputation of Oxford.

Who better to ask about inspiring change and implementing new technology solutions in higher education?

We sat down with Bramwell to hear how his team gets buy-in for change internally, how the school approaches online education, and how they select and prioritize their education technology (“EdTech”) projects and vendors.

For the CIOs, Directors of IT, or any other technology decision-makers reading, we hope you find this conversation as enlightening as we did!

Ask the CIO: Mark Bramwell, Saïd School of Business

Molly McCracken: Thanks for joining us, Mark. You’re working within one of the world’s oldest universities. How do you inspire your colleagues, your departments, and your faculty members to make new changes and to be leaders in innovation when there’s so much history within the institution?

Mark Bramwell: I was presenting on this yesterday at a Microsoft in Education event, so it’s very current and very relevant.

We are a 21-year-old business school, embedded within an 800-year-old university. We are very proud to be embedded within that — to be part of Oxford and have a slightly larger degree of autonomy to be agile, to experiment, and to innovate within the business school as a ‘test bed’ for the wider University.

That becomes more paramount because, in essence, we are what you might call the closest to a commercial arm of the University. Our students, although I prefer to call them customers rather than students, are very different.

They are post-graduate (MBA, EMBA, MMPM, MFE, Diploma) and Executive Education coming from leading global organizations.

I would say their expectations are significantly different and higher than other students’ at the university. With this, their expectations around technology are higher. They sometimes look at institutions, such as the business school, in terms of what they invest in technology and innovation — and consider that in their decision-making process as to where to attend.

So we continue to be an innovative organization that embraces technology, our focus being to provide our students and clients with a much richer learning experience when they come here: Whether that be face-to-face, blended, or entirely online, we think it’s important to embrace technological development. And the reality is, if we don’t, if we stand still, we’ll fall behind. I don’t think it’s a question of inspiring colleagues, it’s a question of can we afford not to?

“I don’t think it’s a question of inspiring colleagues, it’s a question of can we afford not to?”

A business woman leading a boardroom discussion

MM: With that in mind, the School has invested a lot in online education. I know there’s kind of this stigma around the quality of a digital MBA and the quality of online education in general. Do you see your institution being able to change that?

MB: We do not, as part of our five-year plan at the moment, have an aspiration to provide an entirely online MBA. That’s not part of our strategy. We do, however, have an online portfolio and that continues to increase.

In October 2017, we launched our first entirely online programs in Fintech, Blockchain, and Algorithmic Trading. We’ve just launched Digital Marketing, with further programs in AI and Women in Transformational Leadership planned. These are much more focused and concentrated modules of learning (e.g. 10-week, 10-module programs). To date, via these programs, we have built a very vibrant and active online community of over 8,500 course participants.

However, we do experiment and additionally augment content online in both a blended and flipped scenario.

We do this by providing reading lists and content in advance of the classes. For example, if we’re running a program on Digital Marketing we might provide some concept as to the key terms, themes, and pillars around Digital Marketing so we’re not spending value-adding time in the classroom explaining basic principles and getting the cohort up to a similar level of understanding. They all come with a predefined and base level of knowledge. Therefore, you get a much more interactive, discussion-based, and value-adding experience in the class.

That’s where we’re different, with the Oxford quality benchmark still very relevant. Whether it’s an MBA, online program or module, the content and the experience has to meet a quality benchmark. That’s a challenge that we constantly face in terms of “how do we translate what we might call the Oxford experience into an online program and best showcase our incredible faculty?”

The way we try to address this is with the quality of the content, delivery, and support that goes around the online program.

We provide augmented Q&A, online digital coaching, and online digital mentoring in support of a program so it’s not just, “here’s some online content, go and learn yourself.” Each program provides assisted learning, coaching, and mentoring to support, enhance and back this up.

MM: You don’t have a vision for an online MBA in the next five years. Is that something you foresee changing? In the next 10 to 20 years, do you think the online MBA is going to be something that can be delivered at the same level?

MB: The world of learning is changing phenomenally fast. I don’t think we can ever say never, especially since one of the biggest challenges we face at the business school is one of physical space. We’re in a position at the moment where we can’t accommodate any more physical students on campus. Therefore, one of the only ways we can expand our audience and reach is by growing our digital portfolio.

Although this is just personal thinking — and not currently Saïd Business School thinking or part of its strategic plan — opportunities may exist to partner and collaborate with other world-leading business schools. Perhaps the concept of a combined MBA with somebody like Harvard, Wharton, or Yale, where a student might do four months at Harvard, four months at Oxford, and four months online. It could be offered as the World’s Best MBA, provided by the best business schools in the world, with the best faculty, professors, and content.

I think that could be amazing. There would be many barriers, sensitivities, and delivery changes to get through to make it a possibility … but it’s not impossible!

MM: When you’re thinking about how to decide where to go, how do you ensure you’re taking calculated risks when you try new technology? As in, what would you advise to other folks in a similar innovation position or information technology position? How do you figure out if you’re making the right choices with your reputation at stake?

MB: Again, I think it’s about balance and it’s about taking calculated and considered risks all the time.

It’s about measuring risk, impact, and the potential possibility of that risk occurring. That’s what our jobs are. This extends to every new solution, new technology, and new partner that we bring into our portfolio. But that’s also what is exciting about working in technology.

Sometimes though, it’s just about trying things and experimenting with them. The best kernels of innovation sometimes come by trying something and seeing what happens.

“The best kernels of innovation sometimes come by trying something and seeing what happens.”

And that’s the benefit of providing empowered cultures where people feel comfortable to experiment and fail. It’s very cliché, it’s not new to us, but the cliché around “deliver quickly, fail quickly, and move on” is really important.

We go in to those experiments and innovations knowing that they’re set up to be scalable and supportable, so we can scale them up very quickly if they’re successful.

Going back a little bit to your first question around how we inspire people and how we motivate them: I feel empowered and enabled to be agile, to experiment, to innovate, and try things in a safe environment.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s considered risk, there’s recklessness, and there’s using the right approach for the right solution and technology. For example, we probably wouldn’t upgrade our finance system in an agile way. We would take a much more considered approach because of the potential impact of getting it wrong.

However, for our website we’ve been using more agile and sprint based methodologies to deliver quickly.

So it’s all about finding the right balance. That’s how we try to motivate and engage people as there’s nothing more exciting than trying new things, seeing whether they stand or fail, and improving a student, faculty or staff members experience by facilitating positive change.

“That’s how we try and motivate and engage people as there’s nothing more exciting than trying new things.”

University of Oxford Campus

MM: What would you tell other CIOs who maybe have the same approach and mindset you do, but are struggling with conservatism at their institution?

MB: Have the courage of your conviction. It’s down to the individual. If somebody says no to you, it’s very easy to give up.

Have the tenacity, the resilience, and the robustness to believe in what you’re trying to do.

When I joined the business school and University, various people told me that I couldn’t do things simply because they had never been done before. I love that challenge. For example, three years ago we were told that we wouldn’t be able to outsource our infrastructure to the cloud. We were told we couldn’t implement Canvas in a month and migrate all of our programs for the start of our new academic year to enhance our student experience, but we did it. We now have no physical infrastructure on site.

So you’ve just got to have the courage of conviction.

“You’ve just got to have the courage of your conviction.”

A little bit of that comes from experience, in terms of knowing and believing what’s right. A huge amount also comes from having the confidence in your team and your partners to deliver. Part of that comes from setting some clear direction and leadership around where you’re trying to get to and what success looks like.

If you can build an empowered team where everybody knows where they are going, how they will contribute, and what success looks like, then everybody is motivated because they know what their role is. Then anything becomes possible.

MM: That’s a really great perspective. Some of what I’ve heard from other schools is people feel like education technology solutions are coming in just for the sake of putting technology in — “Oh, we don’t have a tech that does this, so we’ll throw it in,” and then they don’t end up keeping the solution because they don’t have that greater vision and strategic idea of what purpose that tech serves.

MB: We have something called the IT Development Agenda which is our itemized list of projects. This is where our relationship with Kira Talent came in. But what I’ll say is, it’s not the IT Development Agenda, it’s the business development agenda. IT is there to support, facilitate, and enable the delivery of business projects that involve technology. The projects are all business-sponsored, they are all business-driven, and there’s a business requirement and business case for them. No project makes the IT Development Agenda without an accountable business sponsor.

We don’t just introduce technology for technology’s sake, because the worst thing is to have something that doesn’t meet a business need, becomes redundant and/or is not used. Resources are precious (people, time, and money) so there’s always a total cost of ownership to consider.

“We just don’t input and introduce technology for technology’s sake, because the worst thing is to have something that doesn’t meet a business need, becomes redundant and/or is not used.

MM: So in the case of an admissions solution, the admissions department vocalizes their interest and leaves it with you to facilitate and deliver the end solution?

MB: Yes. I think what helps us and builds our credibility, is that over the past two to three years, we’ve built a degree of trust within the organization of being a team that delivers. So our business customers and partners have a lot more confidence in us in terms of saying, “We’re clear, this is our objective – can you go and make it happen?”

However, all of the things like requirements, configurations, and testing are still heavily reliant on our business partners to confirm and sign off that a solution is what they want, is what was expected, and works as required.

Because at the end of the day, it’s a business partnership. Whether or not a project is successful reflects on all of us. We’re making an investment in technology and we’re making an investment in this partnership. If it doesn’t work, the executive sponsor for the project and myself as CIO would ultimately be accountable. So it’s got to work and it’s in both of our interests to make sure it does.

MM: As the “trusted source” within the school to validate partners, I’m curious how you go about evaluating a potential education technology vendor?

MB: Well there are a number of factors and considerations.

First is setting partnerships up from the beginning for success. When we enter into a new relationship, we typically don’t see that as a six-month or a one-year agreement. You can’t be a partnership for one year. For example, almost as soon as you sign you’re starting to think about renewing (or exiting).

So, if we’re in it and have conducted appropriate due diligence, we like to commit long term because that allows both sides to invest time in each other and start building valuable partnerships. That comes with investing time so that we understand the partner and they understand us.

Then there are other practical things that we look for. We obviously consider things like financial viability, the stability of an organization, and security. You [Kira Talent] will know that having gone through our third-party security assessment. Compliance is increasingly important, particularly in the UK with new legislation such as GDPR and the strict security standards around that.

The other thing relates to people; I put a lot of stake in terms of people. Are they people that we’re going to enjoy working with? Are they people who’ve got the interest of the business school and the university at heart?

What I’d say is, I don’t like partners who have a chequebook mentality. We reach out about a problem and they say, “well that’s going to cost you.” But part of that is also recognizing that a partnership doesn’t start by driving people down to cost neutral. We realize that you have to make a margin, you have to make a profit, and we want you to because we want you to be there next week, next month, and next year.

So with that, we have certain service expectations. Because of our reputation and our standing, the solutions we bring into our system portfolio have got to work.

If we think about our Executive Education, we’re developing some of the world’s top executives. Our MBAs are paying £80,000 a year to be with us. As we alluded to, they’re not students, they’re VIP customers. The technology has got to work.

And we want to provide that because if we want to be a world-class business school, we’ve got to have world-class technology with world-class partners.

“If we want to be a world-class business school, we’ve got to have world-class technology with world-class partners.”

MM: To wrap up, we talked earlier about what isn’t in your five-year plan … but let’s talk about what you are most concerned about over the next five years at the Saïd Business School of Business.

MB: If I talk generally, the big trends are going to be around digital innovation, digital transformation, and digital agility.

Higher education is not immune to the fact that we’re going to have to do more with less, and faster. Whether that be less money, less budget, or fewer people. And we’re going to want to start to see the realization and delivery of benefits earlier.

I think long gone are legacy ERP-type projects where a project team goes and locks itself in a room for two years and you cross your fingers and hope that something comes out at the end (and that the business has not moved on or changed in those two years).

Businesses are changing every month. Not every year.

For example, our MBA is a one year program so our students are typically with us for one year.

We feel we are just getting to know them and then they graduate (to become valued alumni of the school). Then our next cohort comes in with potentially a totally different set of expectations, needs, and experiences.

We have to be agile in responding to that. With that, our IT teams have to be more generalist rather than specialist. They have to be jack-of-all-trades. They have to be customer-facing. They have to be supplier relationship managers, commercial contract managers, and project managers. They need all of those skill sets while also be able understanding how technology is changing and how it can be applied.

Above all, they have to be maitre d’s not waiters in making every customer (student, faculty, staff, guest) feel special and valued.

MM: That’s all the time we have today, but given what you shared above I can imagine how relevant and timely this conversation will be for your peers around the world in similar roles. This has been an absolute delight, thank you, Mark.

MB: Thank you, Molly.


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